Commentary Magazine


Thoughts in a Freiburg Cemetery

As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.

In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.

The odious pettiness of Heidegger’s personal conduct, and the moral collapse that it implied, was brought home to me by a visit to the little cemetery in Günterstal, a suburb of Freiburg. We were there to pay our respects at the grave of Walter Eucken, the great economist whose work inspired the post-war “economic miracle” and helped to set Germany back on the path of liberty and democracy.

A stone’s throw away from the memorial to Eucken is the Husserl family grave. A young scholar at the Walter Eucken Institute, Nils Goldschmidt, told me how Freiburg treated the founder of phenomenology, who was then the most famous living German philosopher. Having already retired when Hitler came to power, Husserl avoided the teaching ban that was imposed on Jewish professors, but he was not even allowed to use the university library. Socially, not only Heidegger but practically all the professors at Freiburg shunned Husserl—with the exception of Eucken, whose wife Edith was herself partly Jewish and who continued to pay visits to the Husserls. While Heidegger was busily excising all references to his former master from new editions of Being and Time, Eucken made a point of quoting Husserl.

When Husserl died in 1938, only two professors attended his funeral: the economist Eucken and the historian Gerhard Ritter. Long afterwards, in an interview he gave to Der Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger excused himself by claiming that it was the Husserls who had broken off relations, not the other way round. But he admitted that “it was a human failing that I did not express once more my gratitude and my admiration” at the time of Husserl’s death. I do not think Heidegger ever grasped the enormity of his “human failing,” of which his treatment of his teacher was only a symbol. But it is Heidegger the Nazi who still basks in the posthumous limelight, while the names of Husserl and Eucken are known only to specialists.

On a warm April evening in that lovely place surrounded by hills, the stillness broken only by the church bell, I tried to imagine the unimaginable repeating itself here in Europe. A lifetime—threescore years and ten—now separates us from the great betrayal. Just long enough for a combination of anxiety and amnesia to wipe out the memory of those days. In British schools, many teachers are afraid to talk about the history of anti-Semitism because they fear confrontation with their Muslim students, who have often been told at the mosque that the Shoah is a myth.

Even in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, there is vast ignorance about both the past and its implications for the present. Few are prepared to entertain the thought that, unless Iran and other Islamist states or terrorists are prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, our generation, too, may witness another Holocaust. They do not seem to grasp that this time, Israel’s fate is directly linked to Europe’s.

One retired German professor, just old enough to remember the Third Reich, has this week made a symbolic commitment to that shared destiny. Joseph Ratzinger, writing under his own name, not as Pope Benedict XVI, has published the first part of a book about Jesus Christ. To judge from extracts in the German press, the main import of this work is finally to lay to rest the age-old enmity of the Church and the Jews. For the first time, a Pope has not only portrayed Jesus as an observant Jew, “the living embodiment of the Torah,” but has written with humility and love about the Jews of Jesus’ time. Gone is the old caricature of the Pharisee as hypocrite and the “Old Testament morality” as un-Christian. John Paul II already embraced the living covenant and divine purpose of Israel. But Benedict has gone even further: in his view, only the person of Jesus divides Jew and Christian, and the universal mission of Jesus is entirely compatible with the special status of the Jewish people.

A lifetime separates Heidegger’s betrayal from Ratzinger’s reconciliation. How long before Europe recognizes the present danger to Jew and Christian alike, and unites against the common enemies of Western civilization?

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